What is a Text? & Media-Specific Analysis

From Hayles, N. Katherine. “Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis,” Poetics Today 25.1 (2004), 67-90.

“Media-specific analysis (MSA) attends both to the specificity of the form—the fact that the Voyager paper clip is an image rather than a piece of bent metal—and to citations and imitations of one medium in another. Attuned not so much to similarity and difference as to simulation and instantiation, MSA moves from the language of “text” to a more precise vocabulary of screen and page, digital program and analogue interface, code and ink, mutable image and durably inscribed mark, texton and scripton, computer and book.” (1)

“In emphasizing materiality, I do not mean to imply that all aspects of a medium’s apparatus will be equally important. Rather, materiality should be understood as existing in complex dynamic interplay with content, coming into focus or fading into the background, depending on what performances the work enacts.” (3)

“The crucial move is to reconceptualize materiality as the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies. This definition opens the possibility of considering texts as embodied entities while still maintaining a central focus on interpretation. In this view of materiality, it is not merely an inert collection of physical properties but a dynamic quality that emerges from the interplay between the text as a physical artifact, its conceptual content, and the interpretive activities of readers and writers. Materiality thus cannot be specified in advance; rather, it occupies a borderland—or better, performs as connective tissue—joining the physical and mental, the artifact and the user.” (3)


Exercise: break up into 4 groups. Each group will take one of the definitions of “text” in Yin Liu’s “Ways of Reading, Models for Text, and the Usefulness of Dead People” article that we read for homework. These four kinds of “text” are: material, structural, semantic, and data. Liu’s essay works to describe medieval definitions of text in terms that make sense in conjunction with 21st-century analog and digital ideas of text. One of his goals is to convey the fluidity and multiplicity of the idea of “text.” In your group, you will design a short lesson to teach our class about your definition of text. You will have 20 minutes to create a short presentation using Google Slides or another app that you are comfortable with. (You may also choose not to do a presentation if you have another creative idea.) Your presentation will:

  1. Convey what you believe to be the argument that Liu makes overall in his essay
  2. For your definition of “text,” teach us (1) the definition, expression, and function that Liu articulates. You can quote from Liu but you also must explain in your own terms.
  3. Provide an example of a 21st-century text that most closely matches the model of medieval text that Liu talks about. Include an image of that text in your slides.

*For the group that works on the “Semantic” model of text, help us understand how Andrew Stauffer’s research on An Old Sweetheart of Mine fits or does not fit into this model.

At the end of the 20 minutes, we will share our short presentations with the class. They should be no more than 5 minutes long a piece.


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